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Volume 7, Issue 45;   November 7, 2007: Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual

Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

Official portrait of Colin L. Powell as the Secretary of State of the United States of America, taken in January 2001. One incident in his career serves to illustrate the full complexity of the "Hit and Run" model of career decisions. Shortly after the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, when the administration of George W. Bush was still near its zenith in popularity and confidence, Secretary Powell resigned his position. Not all resignations are examples of "Hit and Run," but some are motivated by knowledge of trouble looming in the near future. We cannot know whether Secretary Powell's decision was so motivated, but in retrospect, it is consistent with a closely related variant of "Hit and Run" that one might call "It's Your Ball," (or "Be My Guest" or "Knock Yourself Out") in its positive form, or "Jumping Ship" in a more disreputable form. Secretary Powell's well-established record of integrity suggests that if anything, his decision might best fit "It's Your Ball." Photo by U.S. Department of State courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When political operators uses toxic tactics at work, we need not respond by descending into the pit right alongside them. Responding ethically and with integrity is almost always possible, if we can detect the devious tactics early enough. Here's a collection of fairly widely used political tactics, with some suggestions for ethical, but politically savvy, responses.

Hit and Run
When someone moves on from one high profile activity to another while the current effort is still underway, he or she might have knowledge (or suspect) that the current effort is at risk or doomed. Soon afterward, the project implodes, but the operator isn't charged, and often claims that the then-current owners of the activity are at fault.
If a project in your organization implodes dramatically, just after the departure of its leader or champion, investigate carefully before calling on her or him to rescue the project. Rule out "Hit and Run" before you get hit again.
The proxy target
Sometimes an attacker's true target isn't the person who's attacked. Rather, it could be the supervisor or mentor of the person attacked. By attacking the proxy target, the attacker diverts the attention of the true target, and might even harm the true target's reputation.
When attacked by someone much more powerful than yourself, don't assume that you're the true target. You could be a proxy. The harm done to you might be just as real, but knowing what's actually happening can be extremely helpful in formulating a response.
Confidential disinformation
When we confide in one another, the confider usually believes what is confided. That's one reason why we tend to believe what others tell us in confidence. Enhanced credibility explains, in part, why political operators sometimes tell lies — or partial truths — in confidence. And they also gain the protection of secrecy and deniability.
Don't assume that confiders believe everything they tell you in confidence. Verify and validate when you can.
The favored subordinate
Supervisors sometimes designate a favored subordinate who receives extra attention, multiple benefits, and who can seemingly do no wrong. Especially when this designation results from supervisor initiative — that is, when the designee hasn't curried favor — the supervisor has acknowledged and usually accepts the possibility that other subordinates will become resentful or demoralized.
Whether or not the favored When someone moves on from
one high profile activity to another
while the current effort is still
underway, he or she might know
that the current effort
is at risk or doomed
subordinate has sought special status, it's likely that the supervisor's intentional choice is a signal to other subordinates that they must either accept secondary status, or move on. Because there are rarely any limits to how secondary that secondary status will be, it's probably best to move on. You lose little, though, because the favored position is usually just another form of subordination, maintained only at the price of freedom and dignity.

Detecting these patterns in our own situations can be difficult, because we don't want to find them. Look for them first in the situations others face. When you become adept at spotting them there, examine your own. Go to top Top  Next issue: Healthy Practices  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

For more devious political tactics, check out the archive Devious Political Tactics.

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A red flagComing July 22: Red Flags: I
When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
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